Thoughts from the Trenches: How to Make the Longue Durée Manageable
In 1967, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office refused to license German playwright Rolf Hochhuth’s new play, Soldiers: An Obituary for Geneva, for London’s National Theatre. The play, which decried strategic bombing during WWII, also held Winston Churchill responsible for the death of Polish General Sikorski. Sikorski had led the Polish government in exile and died in a plane accident off of British Gibraltar in 1943. Citing concerns for the Churchill family (Churchill died in 1965), the LCO first hedged on offering the license, then refused it. It would be one of the LCO’s last decisions before the end of theatre censorship in Britain the following year.
The play became the subject of intense external scrutiny for the better part of two years; libel suits stemming from the play extended the debate into the 1970s. The controversy pitted a self-professed new generation of Britons against older board members, a number of whom had not only fought in the war but were personal friends of the Churchill family. Was the play a libel on Churchill’s memory? On the nation and those involved in the war effort? Was personal reputation sacrosanct enough to justify censorship? Whose account of history was even right in the first place? And whose story was this to tell?
Then Director of the National Theatre, Sir Lawrence Olivier, eventually backed away from the play, though the National Theatre’s Literary Director, Kenneth Tynan, continued as Hochhuth’s champion. Tynan eventually staged the play at another theatre in December 1968. The play ended up being performed in London for only a few months. The Churchill family never sued for libel, but others involved in the account of the crash did. As Tynan’s biographer notes: focused on the end of theatre censorship, Tynan had not taken into account a simultaneous strengthening of the laws of defamation .
When heading to London earlier this summer, there was but one single mention of Soldiers in my list of archives to see at the British Library. I knew there was some issue of libel involving Churchill, but nothing more. The case does not feature in accounts of defamation law. Indeed, the Churchill family never sued and, as I have learned since, the suits that were filed did little to influence case law. Yet, the play has quickly become a central example for my project. Beyond its intrinsic narrative interest, the Soldiers controversy enables me to tackle the interrelated threads of a very big project whose scope requires taming. Finding the case was thus something of a relief; but it was a studied find, not just a lucky one. I’ll try to explain what I mean so as to offer some suggestions about managing what can seem like ever-proliferating narrative threads when undertaking a new topic.
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For my dissertation and first book, I read every item with “refugee” in the title I could find in the British Library catalogue and in the National Archives at Kew. From there, I worked to establish whom Britons identified as refugees over time as well as key turning points in the use of the category. Zeroing in on these moments, I extended my research on these cases in other archival and periodical sources. The research for Beyond Sticks and Stones has tested this method to the extreme. I could not hope to read everything in the British Library on reputation. How would I even find those pieces? The topic is simply too large and nebulous. What nineteenth-century novel does not hinge on matters of reputation or attempts to know character? All court cases involve “libels” – or charges. “Defamation” itself regularly refers to attacks on personal character, and seditious, blasphemous, and obscene libel. So, what to do…? For me, the answer lies in sampling primary material early and, through those early samples, establishing initial patterns and breaking the project into more manageable pieces.
Once I had my initial research question -- What shaped the quasi-right to personal reputation? -- I began to build my bibliography and to read the secondary literature on defamation and reputation. While this is critical, to be sure, secondary reading cannot be done in isolation from primary material when defining a topic of one’s own. I start with a patch of evidence that I hope will help to establish the parameters of my subject, seeing how contemporary actors wrote about it, not just scholars in the years since.
1. Sampling. Unable to read everything on reputation, I began with a sample from the Times of London. Over several months, I read all editorials and correspondence with the keywords “defamation,” “slander,” “libel,” “calumny,” and “reputation” between 1785, when the newspaper began, and the present. This task familiarized me with the major controversies over reputation over the past two hundred and fifty years, when the defense of reputation became a topic worthy not just of law reports, but of mainstream public commentary. I could derive from this a working timeline as well as basic patterns of debate.
2. The Fields of Scholarship. There are histories of the defense of reputation, but they are piecemeal. In British history, one finds key elements in accounts of privacy, celebrity, scandal, and of the media more generally. Even in the few legal histories of defamation, authors have tended to separate out different elements. We have books on obscene libel and on blasphemy, as well as a large literature that examines seditious libel and radical reform. Within the few texts on personal defamation, chapters tend to take aspects like fair comment, slander, and damages to write about their evolution separately. Sampling primary material helps, I find, to see better which seemingly separate swatches of scholarship are actually part of the same broader public conversation. This work itself ramifies, of course. I did not know when I first read that subset of Times commentary in 2016 that by 2019 I would need to track down literature on the Lord Chamberlain’s Office.
3. Making Selections, Establishing Core Points. The task of the historian is not that of the chronicler and it shouldn’t be, even if the list of patterns and key moments were well-behaved enough that they could be included in a single volume. We seek explanations of change over time. I only half tease my students that they need to ban the words “also,” “additionally,” “furthermore” and so on – the connectors that so often stand in for stepping back to make a coherent argument. To change history by narrative accretion into history as explanation, the task is to organize chapters around the core episodes that move the argument along thematically and chronologically. This takes time and, for me, usually involves writing through several cases at a time, brainstorming comparisons along the way to help forge a compelling argument from a list of cases, points, or threads. I still remember vividly the day I first read about the Fugitive Slave Circulars for my dissertation in the summer of 2005. The contest over these Circulars crystallized issues of right, intervention, humanitarian need, and the very nature of life in British asylum and helped furnish a key turning point in my account of modern refuge. I had a hunch that I could use the material as a tool for thinking through the project as a whole. Indeed, I used it as one of my earliest conference papers and, later, for fellowships and the job market. It is still early, but the 1967-1968 question of whether to stage Soldiers feels like it has similar promise.
 Dominic Shellard, Kenneth Tynan: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 314.